I don't know about you, but I've recently been overwhelmed by this cyclone called Artificial Intelligence (AI), and there's no place on the internet where I don't read something about it! And it looks like 2023 will be a year of significant change where AI will become more part of our lives. So I thought it would be interesting to conduct some research and see if AI can be applied to the woodworking world seen from nonprofessional enthusiasts' eyes.
I remember, when I was a kid, watching all the TV series that represented an impossible future that nobody would have ever imagined. And yet, here we are! Things move fast, and, like anything, the woodworking industry is adapting to the change, intending to deliver more efficiency and quality to the customers.
In this article, I will go through the following topics:
If you are new to this term, AI is a branch of computer science that is becoming very popular and that studies and develops the simulation of intelligent behaviour in machines. In layperson's terms, we are now starting to talk to computers like humans, using a natural language without predefined patterns! This innovation will revolutionise the woodworking industry and produce many benefits, thanks to the automation of several processes manually performed not long ago.
It's not immediate, at least for me, to imagine how many applications would be possible, but the list could be extended; imagine what it would be like to have a machine that can analyse material and detect defects, cut with the minimum waste, optimise the design and allow for more accurate production of furniture or other wood-based products.
Of course, these applications will initially be introduced in support of industrial manufacturers, and we, as hobbyists or small businesses, won't see much change. But it is also true that, like the introduction of computers a few decades ago, this technology will become cheaper and accessible with low budgets.
An example? Imagine you want to create a design for a piece of furniture. You know the style, the dimensions and the type of wood you want to use, and you need a few ideas to unlock your creative process. Based on your query, AI can offer examples of designs you can use and produce an entire project with the components you need to cut.
And it doesn't stop there! You will also get the exact count of the material you need to buy with minimum waste.
If it looks too good to be true, get ready because this will be the new world, and it is coming faster than you think! It's like we are watching something through the keyhole, and sooner than we expect, the door will open.
I'm not here to promote all the goods of AI, and, to be honest, I find it a bit scary! But when I look at all the benefits it can produce, I think it will be an excellent addition to our arsenal in the workshop. And mind that, I say addition and not substitution. As woodworkers and makers, we must continue to have an intimate relationship with wood using traditional techniques involving hand tools. We are looking at woodworking as an opportunity to reconnect with nature, using it as a form of meditation and relaxation.
Let's look at what AI can do to help us increase our productivity in the workshop. To do this, let's start the typical journey of a woodworker who plans to build any piece of furniture.
All starts from the design phase, and, as we are used to usually doing, we take inspiration from what is around us; we blend our taste with the need for a functional and practical piece. With the advent of AI in our support, the woodworker can inform the software about the specifics of the work and get in return several options that will match the query. It's then up to the maker to decide which option to consider, personalise and adapt. With the correct prompts, AI can provide reasonably accurate results.
Then, depending on the project type and location, AI can also advise about the best material to use based on cost, availability and functionality, offer possible alternatives in case the desired species is unavailable, and report on the best joints to use to have construction that will stand the proof of time.
And it doesn't stop here! AI has a massive database of pictures; it can analyse the material and possible defects and optimise the cuts to minimise the waste of material; these are potential benefits that will improve the quality of the output and make the entire process faster and with better quality.
Once the design process is completed, AI keeps supporting the woodworker with practical advice as construction starts. AI will analyse the material, produce a cut list and help us choose the best tool for the specific task. It will be like having a personal assistant at the workbench, ready to suggest the best action when we need support.
Finally, when we complete the construction of our piece, AI can advise on the best finish for the type of project and guide us step by step on the whole process with detailed instructions, video tutorials and interactive guides.
If you are an educational institution or just interested in what AI can do to support the continuous learning of students and get the best out of them, providing a tailored education, this part is for you.
I've had formal training in woodworking and the opportunity to see the challenges behind teaching the subject. It's such a vast matter that it needs to be standardised for the main topics to give a solid foundation to students about the essential techniques that everyone must know.
As a traditional approach, a syllabus has always been a well-accepted method of tracing the path and marking the milestones for each student. Nowadays, it is understood that students are not all the same; they learn in different ways and, hence, need a dedicated approach.
The good thing with AI is that it has access to billions of data analysed and organised to provide a learning program specific to students' needs. Being a data collector, AI can use the past to deliver a better learning experience.
So, as an example, AI can collect data about students, see their preferences, analyse their performance, identify the areas of struggle and provide a tailored plan that fits the need of every student, helping them to learn more effectively and improve their woodworking skills.
Think of a student having trouble with a particular technique, such as cutting a dovetail joint. AI can identify areas of improvement and provide targeted instruction on that specific technique, such as videos, tutorials, or feedback from the instructor.
Real-time feedback identifies mistakes that need rectification and suggests alternative methods.
This will eventually bring a more efficient and effective learning path.
At this point, I think that one thing should be clear about AI in woodworking: it's a support meant to help the maker and not a replacement.
From this perspective, I think I'm starting to look at AI less scared of its potential impact, aware that it will be the individual choice to use it responsibly.
As mentioned above, AI can significantly contribute to every woodworker's design process. We all have moments where nothing seems to come out of our heads, and sometimes, we need help to unlock our creativity.
The traditional process of designing a piece of furniture involves not only the actual drawing and the preparation of a cut list but also producing a model in scale, with the intent of better visualisation of the product. This process can take many hours, and it's often overlooked.
AI can revolutionise this because, once the design and style are determined, it can produce a detailed 3D model printed in scale to be examined for potential issues and then proposed to the client.
Imagine how much time and money can be saved for the maker and the client!
Another area in which AI can be quite helpful is laying out a road map to make the construction process efficient and productive, organising and prioritising tasks. It can assist woodworkers in better managing their tasks and using their time as effectively as possible.
As you can see, I'm not even touching on all the possible conversion of the inputs generated by AI into automated machines that can replace human activity. Though this is possible and, at industrial levels, already happening, it's not a direct interest or concern of the hobbyist woodworker or small business. Yet, it's worth noticing that CNC is getting very popular in small workshops and, connected to smart software, can generate stunning results in terms of accuracy.
AI is rapidly spreading in any area of our lives, and woodworking is already seeing some effects. Even if we are still in the early stages, many small workshops already use this technology.
But we are already moving fast-paced towards this direction, and it will soon be possible to see AI making an important contribution to the efficiency and productivity of woodworkers. Currently, investing in AI technology has some barriers regarding investment costs. With time, we will see more and more opportunities to integrate it into our construction process.
It is of fundamental importance to remember that, as hobbyists or small businesses, AI comes in our support and helps to simplify tedious processes. It is not a replacement for our creativity; neither is it supposed to replace the woodworker in executing tasks that connect the woodworker to the material and give uniqueness to a bespoke piece of furniture. Hopefully, also in the future, no machine will ever be able to replace our artistic vision.
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Dubai Makers Society offers a woodworking space to rent using power tools and heavy machines.
We also run regular classes for those who want to learn woodworking.